New ISS Crew On Its Way – UPDATE

New ISS Crew On Its Way – UPDATE

Three new International Space Station (ISS) crew members lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1:45 am EDT. NASA’s Kate Rubins and her two Russian colleagues are the first to take a super-fast trajectory to the ISS and will dock just three hours after launch. This is the last Soyuz seat NASA has purchased from Russia now that the SpaceX Crew Dragon is about to begin operations, but NASA officials expect U.S. astronauts to continue riding on Soyuz, and Russians on U.S. systems, in the future. [UPDATE: The crew docked at 4:48 am EDT.]

Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov are scheduled to dock at 4:52 am EDT.  This two-orbit route has been used for uncrewed Progress resupply flights, but this is the first time for a crew. In recent years a four-orbit (six hour) trajectory has been used, but before that the trip took two days.

Soyuz MS-17 lifts off on its Soyuz 2.1a rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, October 14, 2020 EDT. Screengrab.

Rubins is celebrating her birthday today, and the ISS is about to reach its own anniversary — 20 years of permanent human occupancy.  The first ISS crew was launched on October 31, 2000 and entered the ISS, which had only three of its modules at the time, on November 2.  At least two people have been aboard the facility ever since, rotating on roughly 4-6 month schedules.

Soyuz MS-17 crew, L-R: Kate Rubins (NASA), Sergey Ryzhikov (Roscosmos), Sergey Kud-Sverchkov (Roscosmos)

Since April, the Soyuz MS-16 crew of Chris Cassidy (NASA) and Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner (Roscosmos) have been aboard. They will come home next week. During their mission, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon successfully conducted its Demo-2 test flight, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken joining them for about 2 months this summer.

Four more astronauts will join the Soyuz MS-17 crew next month, delivered by the first operational flight of Crew Dragon, Crew-1. Exactly when it will launch is uncertain, though. The date slipped from October 23 to October 31 to a yet-to-be determined date in November. Three astronauts from NASA and one from Japan’s space agency, JAXA, will arrive for a long-duration flight. That will make a crew of seven. Although more people have been aboard the ISS at certain points over the past 20 years, and the typical ISS long-duration crew complement is six, it will be the first time the long-duration crew will number seven. It is a long-awaited milestone for NASA that will enable much more scientific research to be conducted.

Crew Dragon is part of NASA’s commercial crew program. Boeing is building its own commercial crew spacecraft, Starliner, that NASA hopes will be operational next year.

The SpaceX and Boeing systems are restoring the ability of the United States to launch people to the ISS. NASA has not been able to launch anyone into orbit since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.  Even before that NASA began purchasing crew transportation services — “Soyuz seats” — from Russia, a total of 71 seats since 2006 at a cost of $4 billion.  The price per seat rose from $21.8 million to $90.3 million over those years.

This is the last paid Soyuz seat for NASA if all goes according to plan. NASA now will pay SpaceX and Boeing for rides on Crew Dragon and Starliner for NASA astronauts as well as those from ISS partners Canada, Japan, and Europe.  NASA’s Inspector General estimates that a SpaceX seat will cost NASA $55 million, while a seat on Boeing’s Starliner will be $90 million.

NASA and Roscosmos officials have said for years that they want to continue launching Americans on Soyuz and Russians on the U.S. systems to ensure all crew members are cross-trained on all the vehicles and that at least one Russian and one American are aboard ISS at all times.

NASA expects those flights to be on a no-exchange-of-funds basis, however.  An agreement to that effect has not been signed yet.

The International Space Station.

The ISS is a combination of the “Russian Orbital Segment” (ROS) and the “U.S. Orbital Segment” (USOS) comprised of a collection of modules from Russia, the United Sates, Europe and Japan, plus a complex robotic arm on the exterior that was built by Canada.

The first modules were launched in 1998, more than 20 years ago. The others were launched over a period of time and even now new modules are planned by Russia and the United States (the new U.S. modules will be commercially provided).

At the moment, the ISS crew is trying to pinpoint the source of an air leak in one of the Russian modules. They have identified which module it is in, but not precisely where.  The leak poses no danger to the crew, but could require additional deliveries of air to replenish what is lost.  Perhaps most significantly it draws attention to the age of the facility.

The ISS partners so far have agreed to operate ISS through 2024, but ISS advocates want to extend that to 2028 or 2030.

Boeing operates the USOS under contract to NASA and is responsible for certifying its structural integrity.  Russia’s Energia performs the certification function for the Russian segment and the two companies work together to ensure they have an integrated understanding of the facility’s health.

During a briefing for reporters yesterday as part of the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Boeing ISS Program Manager John Mulholland said “technically, we can support 2030 and beyond.”

“We’re finalizing that analysis, so we’re looking forward from a policy standpoint for the policy makers to memorialize [the lifetime extension], which we expect next year and we’re very supportive of that,” Mulholland said.

He seemed unconcerned about the leak and said there are several “certified repair techniques” the crew can use to seal it.

U.S. policy to support ISS through “at least 2024” is codified in the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act.  Legislation pending in Congress would extend ISS to 2028 (H.R. 5666) or 2030 (S. 2800 and H.R. 5470). NASA has declined to answer questions from about what year it prefers. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, expressed eagerness to extend the ISS lifetime to either 2028 or 2030 during the IAC on Monday.

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